The South African water sector: Municipal Dysfunction, Resistance, and Future Pathways

In South Africa, local government is envisaged as a critical site of redistribution. This vision is laid out in the 1998 White Paper on Local Government, which imagined an entirely new kind of municipality, focused on the delivery of services to all South Africans to address historical injustices and reduce poverty and inequality. However, more than two decades later, local government has become a site of systemic dysfunction. The financial and infrastructural state of municipalities is deeply troubling. According to the South African Auditor General, in June 2021, over 25% of municipalities were at risk of complete operational collapse, the majority invested minimally in infrastructural repair and maintenance, and were faced with irrecoverable debt.

The reasons for this state of crisis include a governance failure, capacity constraints, and the deterioration of financial viability. However, this explanation does not go far enough in accounting for the flaws and inappropriateness inherent in the post-apartheid municipal operating model. This mischaracterization, resulting in a produced crisis, is well captured by Zama Ndlovu as follows:

“The post-Apartheid government has continuously used human rights language to frame its interventions. But its chosen municipal delivery model has not addressed the injustices of our past. Today’s municipalities are contributing towards a deepening of inequality, both through their intended model of provisioning and their ethical and governance failures.”

This report forms part of the Alternative World Water Forum, an activist driven initiative, established as a counter to the World Water Forum taking place in Senegal in March 2022. This study will attempt to unpack the influence and impact of privatization and commercialization principles on the South African water sector. The focus will be placed on the drivers of institutional and infrastructural dysfunction, which manifests as a persistent inequality in water access. The systemic dimensions to municipal governance failure will be centred, as this was envisaged as a critical site of redistribution. Thereafter, community responses and future pathways toward more just provisioning are considered.

Read the full report prepared for the Alternative World Water Forum by Suraya Scheba here.

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